Idalia Brings Surge of Seawater, but Less Damage Than Feared

Hurricane Idalia, the first major storm to pummel Florida this season, brought a surge of seawater on Wednesday that flooded neighborhoods along much of the state’s western coast and lacerating winds that cut power and leveled trees. Two people died in traffic accidents that the police linked to the harsh conditions. Rescuers pulled scores of people from homes that were taking on water.

But the damage inflicted by Idalia, which was a Category 3 hurricane when it made landfall on Wednesday morning, could have been far worse. By a stroke of meteorological good fortune, the hurricane came ashore in a marshy and thinly populated part of Florida, southeast of Tallahassee.

Hardest hit were sparse fishing and beach towns scattered along the Big Bend, the crook in the state that connects the Panhandle to the Florida peninsula.

“It came through — the whole ocean,” said Donna Knight, a clammer in Cedar Key, Fla., a conglomeration of tiny islands connected by bridges that juts three miles into the Gulf of Mexico.

Ms. Knight described a night of howling winds, frightening bangs and flying debris. A Category 3 hurricane has winds between 111 and 129 miles per hour.

“We should have gotten off the island,” she said early Wednesday afternoon.

By the evening, Idalia had been downgraded to a tropical storm and was charging across Georgia and the Carolinas, with the communities of Savannah and Charleston, S.C., both facing the threat of high water overnight.

Along the Florida coast, every last foot of elevation seemed crucial for avoiding the worst effects of the storm.

Not long after the storm had passed, Doug Nicholson, a resident of Crystal River, a coastal city south of Cedar Key, watched floodwaters rise along his street. His home is 13 feet above sea level, he noted. But his neighbors were on lower ground and bracing for the water to rush “right through their entire house,” he said.

Idalia generated distressingly familiar scenes of residential streets turned to rivers and wind-battered homes. But the damage was much smaller than that of Hurricane Ian last year, which made landfall in populous Southwest Florida and was responsible for 150 deaths — many of them from drowning during an enormous storm surge — and over $112 billion in damage. Ian was the state’s deadliest storm since 1935.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said on Wednesday that Idalia had knocked out power for 250,000 residents, but that the road conditions in the state were “probably better than what I would have thought.” The governor canceled campaign events for his 2024 presidential run and returned to the state for the storm.

The two deaths were traffic accidents, one in Pasco County, where a motorist collided with a tree, and the other in Gainesville, where the driver veered into a ditch. In both cases, the Florida Highway Patrol reported that stormy conditions had contributed to the accidents.

As it moved northeast and dumped heavy rain over Georgia and South Carolina, the storm brought more disruptions. Boeing announced that it would pause production in North Charleston, S.C., where it builds the twin-aisle 787 Dreamliner airplane. More than 200,000 customers in Georgia and South Carolina were without power as of Wednesday evening. And departing flights had been canceled at the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in Georgia.

As was the case in previous storms, the flooding along Idalia’s path had the paradoxical effect of officials calling on residents to conserve water.

“Due to the flooding, there is a strain on the city lift stations and storm water systems,” officials in Clearwater, Fla., posted, urging residents to take shorter showers, turn off water when they brushed their teeth or shaved, and not water lawns.

In the Big Bend region, the storm affected communities that residents described as “old Florida” — beach houses, most of them not too fancy, and small-town main streets that feel more a part of the South than most of the state’s peninsula.

In Keaton Beach, near where the storm made landfall around 7:45 a.m., most houses that were raised on stilts withstood it, though many had chunks of roof and siding torn off.

“My second floor is fine,” Glenda White said late Wednesday afternoon as she peeked down from her railing. Her first floor, though? It took on five feet of water.

“We got nine feet during Hurricane Hermine!” she noted, referring to a Category 1 storm that came through in 2016. Perhaps because they learned from that storm, a vast majority of people in Keaton Beach appeared to have evacuated. Even Ms. White, known among her neighbors as a grizzled hurricane veteran, did not stay.

“My family would kill me,” she said.

Further south, Cedar Key is “just like a little village lost in time,” said Michael Presley Bobbitt, a playwright who lives there. “I’ve just always been obsessed with the history of the place — the quaint, slow pace of the place.”

But when Idalia passed, it knocked down trees and sent Gulf water rushing onto the picturesque streets. A bridge to the island was flooded, trapping dozens of people there on Wednesday morning.

Mr. Bobbitt, 47, knew that the mayor begged people to leave on Tuesday. Still, he decided to stay. His home was on high ground, he said; it remained intact.

For the most part, he said, the holdouts on the island seemed to be OK on Wednesday. But the commercial area, he said, could take a long time to recover.

“Our little downtown shopping district, with our restaurants and our shops — 100 percent of those buildings are ruined,” Mr. Bobbitt said. “They’re all underwater.”

Ms. Knight, also in Cedar Key, ventured out in a windbreaker and boots hours after waters from the Gulf of Mexico swept through her house.

The storm surge lingered on some roads, smelling of salt water and gasoline; tree branches littered the street. Ms. Knight’s boat had been carried east up the road, she said.

A 20-year Cedar Key resident, she had every intention of heeding the mandatory evacuation order ahead of Idalia, she said. “My bags were packed.” She just needed gas and groceries, and would join her husband and mother-in-law near Orlando.

But her 19-year-old son didn’t want to go. So she stayed with him, listening to the roar of the storm as the waters rose, across her backyard, into the first floor, across the street. A tree blocked her into the house, but she eventually managed to climb out.

The water appeared to be waist high inside, she said, but higher outside. The power held on until about 3 a.m. on Wednesday.

Her son, who has diabetes, had an insulin stash, and she had lunch meat and food that she made in a crockpot on Tuesday night. They had enough water in jugs “at least for today,” she said.

“It’s OK,” Ms. Knight said. “We’re alive. For now.”

Reporting was contributed by Emily Cochrane, Christopher Flavelle, Anna Betts, Johnny Diaz, Judson Jones, James C. McKinley Jr., Jacey Fortin, Niraj Chokshi and Christine Chung.

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